(Photo courtesy of Green Bay Packers)
By Ron Borges
Talk of Fame Network
Don Hutson is considered one of the two or three greatest pass receivers in NFL history, and few with any understanding of pro football history would argue the point. He was a man far ahead of his time. But somebody had to throw him all those passes, didn’t he?
That, as much as anything, is the mystery of Cecil Isbell.
For five years, between 1938 and 1942, Isbell would throw half the passes, for half the yardage and half the touchdowns Hutson would produce during his 11-year career. More significantly, Hutson’s two highest reception totals, two of his three highest yardage totals and three of his four highest touchdown totals all came when Cecil Isbell was throwing him that watermelon that passed for a football in those days.
Not surprisingly, the result of all Isbell’s production was that he was named to the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1930s despite playing in only its final two years (as well as the first three of the next). He would set NFL records for yardage, touchdowns and completion percentage and then break those records while leading the Packers into two league championship games, winning one in 1939.
And then he disappeared.
For those five years, Cecil Isbell was one of the best quarterbacks in football, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who twice led the NFL in completions and passing yardage, twice was second in completion percentage and finished third, second and then first in quarterback rating before walking away from the game before the game could walk away from him.
In those days, the Packers ran the Notre Dame Box, an offense where he actually played tailback while also handling the passing game. In his rookie season (1938), Isbell led the Packers in both rushing and passing despite splitting time with future Hall-of-Famer Arnie Herber, an older player Isbell soon rendered expendable.
Isbell again led the team in rushing in his second season but was so effective as a passer that he began throwing more and rushing less while his production — and Don Hutson’s — soared. In his final two seasons, Isbell twice set the NFL record for passing yards and became the first 2,000-yard passer in league history (2,021 yards in 1942). He also set the league-record for touchdown passes with 24, a standard that stood as the Packers’ team record for 41 years until Lynn Dickey finally broke it in 1983 with 32.
But he needed five more games to do it.
Isbell also threw one or more touchdown passes in each of his final 23 games, a consecutive touchdown streak that stood until Johnny Unitas broke it 15 years later.
Impressive as those numbers are, none are the most revealing of his dominance at the position. Isbell’s final two seasons were his best and arguably two of the best in the history of the position when judged against his peers. Those numbers, it seems to me, should have made him a Hall of Famer himself long ago.
In 1941, the average NFL quarterback accounted for 6.122 points per game. Isbell accounted for 12 (121 points in 10 games), which put his production 98.99 percent above the norm.
The following season, his last, was even more remarkable. That’s the year he threw a then-record 24 touchdown passes. That season he was 117 percent above the league norm in points accounted for by a quarterback and 62 percent better than the great Sammy Baugh, who passed for 497 fewer yards and eight fewer touchdowns than Isbell that season.
All that production led future Hall-of-Fame coach Curly Lambeau (yes, that Lambeau) to remark, “Isbell was the best. Isbell was a master at any range. He could throw soft passes, bullet passes or long passes.’’
Had Isbell continued to play there is little question he would have been in the conversation with Baugh, Herber and Sid Luckman in any discussion concerning the best passer of the 1940s. But Isbell was not only a smart quarterback; he was a smart businessman. While others hung around until they were asked to leave, Cecil Isbell took his leave instead at the age of 27.
When he shocked the Packers by announcing his retirement following his fifth season to become an assistant coach at his alma mater, Purdue, (for more money than he was making at the Packers) Isbell explained it clearly.
“I think I’ve had enough,’’ he said midway through his final season. “Five years of pro football is enough for anyone. If the opportunity comes, I’ll quit the game.’’
He wasn’t kidding. Purdue called, and within a year he became the Boilermakers’ head coach before leaving in 1947 to take over the Baltimore Colts of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), where he helped develop another future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, Y.A. Title.
At the time of his shocking retirement, Isbell said, “I hadn’t been up in Green Bay long when I saw Lambeau go around the locker room and tell players like Herber and (Milt) Ganterbein and (Hank) Bruder that they were all done with the Packers. I sat there and watched, and then I vowed it never would happen to me. I’d quit before they came around to tell me.’’
And that is just what he did.
But pro football was a different business in 1942 than it is today. Careers were far shorter, and so was the money. Cecil Isbell left pro football at the height of his career with a shoulder that had to be held together by a chain under his pads because it kept popping out of the socket, a condition he had since college. Despite being held together, literally, with bailing wire, he passed like no one before him and like few of his peers.
With the induction of Ken Stabler next August, Cecil Isbell will be the only all-decade quarterback not enshrined in Canton. If you can figure out why that shouldn’t change, let me know.